In 1932, Paula Maxa (Anna Mouglalis) is the diva of Paris’s Grand Guignol theatre, dying gruesomely on the tiny stage most nights – with the auditorium crammed with rapt, prurient or disgusted spectators (some pass a vomit bucket, others in the splash zone put on bibs) … an overspill crowd entertained by a narrator who describes the plays to them and lets them press their ears to the walls so they can hear her famous screams … and a nightly assembly of protesters marshalled by the censorious Sylviane (Vérane Frédiani) doing their best to get the place shut down.
This is a fantasised biopic of Maxa (born Marie-Therèse Beau), who wrote (or at least signed) an autobiography that gives the film the title. It’s at its best when showing the on- and offstage business of a typical night’s gruesome fare (with farcical interludes) at the Grand Guignol, depicting the H.G. Lewis-like disfigurements, disememberments and guillotinings for which the house was famous and the processes by which the illusions were achieved live. Director Franck Robière – working from a script he co-wropte with James Charkow, David Murdoch and Vérane Frédiani – also stirs in a serial killer drama, an unconvincing romance, a deal of psychologising, and footnotes about the changing horror business of the era … with Maxa taking a night off to see Dr X, (‘with blood – in colour!’) and wonder whether the recorded screams of Fay Wray might be about to put her out of business. The ingredients are similar to The Limehouse Golem, with a slightly less well-thought-through plot – but there’s a lot of good, gruesome detail here and thumbnail sketches of big personalities like gore auteur entrepreneur André de Lorde (Michel Fau).
Dietrich to de Lorde’s von Sternberg, Marie-Therèse/Maxa is presented here an exhibitionist masochist, haunted by the long-ago murder of her sister by a limping family friend – she believes she could have prevented the crime if she’d not been too shocked to scream – and also by an obsessive fan (André Wilms) who turns out to be the twin brother (see where this is going?) of her sister’s killer. Mouglalis is extraordinary in the role, exorcising her own demons even as it seems more and more likely that de Lorde, the stalker, a make-up man who has sinister means of procuring realistic blood, or even Maxa’s journalist beau (Niels Schneider) is arranging things so that eventually one of her onstage deaths will be genuine. One of the most affecting moments – which I suspect screenwriter Frédiani deliberately nabbed for herself – comes after a calamity and the closure of the theatre as Sylviane the protester turns up, theoretically overjoyed to achieve her stated aim of shutting down the obscene spectacle, but actually devastated and bereft by the loss of her nemesis.